Sunday, June 03, 2007

Israel academic boycott

I am seriously troubled by the proposed boycott of Israeli academics because I am, in principle, committed to freedom of speech, no matter how unpleasant that speech - particularly within the academy (if not there, then where?). And while this is a very unphilosopher-like thing to do (particularly if you believe veils of ignorance aid thinking about justice), I think of the many wonderful flesh and blood people I would never have known if this boycott had already been in place for many years. Equally, I am horrified that we are commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Occupation, with no end to it in sight. I cannot help but wonder how we can debate the freedom of Israelis to travel to academic conferences in other countries, to publish in journals, to receive funding from external sources, when - on the other side - the Separation Barrier has decimated access to basic education in the Occupied Territories, and students in Gaza are now prohibited from travelling to Birzeit in the West Bank to receive a university education. Even if the boycott went through, there would still be a tremendous disparity in the significance of the capabilities that are being denied to people on both sides. I find it difficult to summon up any outrage at the denial of academic freedom to Israelis working within relatively privileged institutions, when Palestinians are denied access to the most basic education.

Martha Nussbaum has written a thoughtful piece against the boycott in Dissent (link via this excellent blog, of which I've become a regular reader). As I've said, I am genuinely torn on this issue, but I find much to disagree with in Nussbaum's article. She claims to be uneasy about the 'single-minded focus on Israel', and argues that the principle of boycott is being inconsistently applied (why not boycott the US for Iraq, or India for Gujarat?). But the focus on Israel has much to do with the singularity of what it has done. It is difficult to look around the world and find another example of a 40-year long violation of public international law (recognised as such by the entire international community - including the US - in its continued designation of the 1967 Territories as 'Occupied'). And not just any violation, but the conquest and occupation of one nation-state by another. (It has recently come to light that Israel's own legal adviser at the time - a 36 year old named Theodor Meron(!) - told his government in no uncertain terms that 'civilian settlement of the administered territories contravenes the explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention'; ironically, the legislative history of the relevant provision of the Geneva Conventions reveals that the prohibition of settlement of occupied territories was 'intended to prevent a practice adopted during the Second World War by certain Powers, which transferred portions of their own population to occupied territory for political and racial reasons or in order, as they claimed, to colonise those territories.' Certain Powers.)

Nussbaum suggests some disappointingly anodyne courses of action as alternatives to the boycott. #1 Censure: after 40 years of Occupation in defiance of the will of the international community, the suggestion that 'some sort of widely disseminated public statement that the institution in question has engaged in such and such wrongful action' might be helpful is, to put it mildly, optimistic. #2 Organised Public Condemnation: Nussbaum recommends the sort of activism that the fair trade movement has tried to encourage, in which individual consumers make decisions about when, why and whom to boycott. It's difficult to see how the privatisation of protest in this fashion promotes 'a sense of shared responsibility', as Nussbaum claims, in contrast to the democratic centralism (a much abused phrase I know, but I mean it in a genuine sense) of unions acting in solidarity with Palestinian unions that have called the boycott in the first place. The privatisation of protest is also a recipe for a sanctions regime with holes, which, anyone can see, would simply be futile. #3 Organised Public Condemnation of an Individual or Individuals: Which individuals should we single out for condemnation for the 40 year long occupation of Palestine? Clearly politicians and policymakers deserve more blame. But in a society where everyone serves in the army of occupation - including, it has to be remembered, virtually all academics - everyone is complicit. #4 Failure to reward: Intuitively, it seems rather odd to respond to violations of law by failing to reward, instead of punishing. #5 Helping the Harmed: This isn't incompatible with punishing the harmers, particularly given the recognition that harm has been done by someone to someone. #6 Being Vigilant on Behalf of the Truth: by using the boycott to promote compliance with law, this is exactly what we would be doing.

Nussbaum thinks that sanctions are a blunt instrument and she is right about this. It is difficult to use them to target the specific individuals who bear greatest culpability for the current state of affairs and who could do the most to change it. Sanctions, particularly in the form they are being promoted today, are a second-best response from global civil society (a much maligned, but defensible entity - sadly, I can't do that here!), born of the frustrated recognition that the international community of states cannot, or will not, do much to push Israel to comply with its legal obligations. Sanctions are all we have, given that states have demonstrated their inability, or unwillingness, to pressure Israel in any meaningful way. Sanctions are civil society's way of levelling the undeniable imbalance that exists between the two negotiating partners - an imbalance that permits one of the parties to create facts on the ground or settle the dispute unilaterally to its advantage, whenever it chooses. In this context, it's important to remember that solidarity activists are not talking about an academic boycott in isolation - it's not as if they think that by boycotting Israeli academia, the political crisis will be magically resolved. Instead, sanctions are envisaged as part of a more comprehensive campaign that would entail boycotting Israeli state institutions, businesses (particularly those in the Occupied Territories ), tourism, sporting events, etc. in an attempt to isolate the state diplomatically and/or persuade Israeli society to change the nature of its state.

Nussbaum is wrong to think that symbolic boycotts are useless. The sporting boycott of apartheid South Africa was one of the most high profile and psychologically compelling elements of the package, given the fondness of white Afrikaners for cricket and rugby. It didn't hurt anyone in a tangible sense, but it left the country out of activities that its citizens valued. In this sense, symbolic boycotts are sometimes preferable to economic boycotts because they are a useful way of putting pressure on societies without violating the basic rights of their citizens. We have seen enough (c.f. Iraq in the 1990s) to know that economic sanctions can be detrimental to human rights - so academic, sporting, cultural and tourist boycotts can actually be more, not less, justifiable.

But, as I keep saying, I am torn. (And it pains me to have to disagree so profoundly with Nussbaum, whom I admire so much.) The biggest reason for hesitation, to my mind, is that it is precisely these sorts of exchanges - academic, sporting, cultural, tourist - that might best promote understanding between enemies when the high politics channels of diplomacy are blocked by mutual recrimination and distrust or, worse, murderous violence. And if Israeli universities - as the best universities everywhere tend to be - are bastions of dissent, the last remaining spaces in which unpopular and heretical thoughts can be voiced in a society that is otherwise compulsorily militarised, should we shun contact with such institutions? Should we heed the call of Ilan Pappe - himself an Israeli academic, arguing in favour of the boycott - or should we conclude that without freedom in the academy (including the freedom to be pro-Occupation) Pappe would himself be unable to articulate the dissent he expresses so fearlessly.

Perhaps all of this turns ultimately on what counts as free speech. All free societies recognise certain limits on the freedom of speech. We can no longer speak in defence of genocide, slavery, piracy and racism . Somehow, the prohibition on colonial occupation has not yet made it into the jus cogens box. For those of us who see ourselves as postcolonial, I think we'd like to expand that box. Just a little. In recognition of some of the nasty little things colonialism did. This is our Never Again. I haven't said anything about 1948 and I can't claim to know what most Palestinians think about 1948 at this time. What they think is more important than what I think. But from my personal point of view, the question is not whether Israel has a right to exist - it is what borders does Israel have a right to exist within? I think it is pretty undeniable that Israel after 1967 has been a colonial occupier. Ronnie Kasrils (the current South African minister for intelligence) recently declared that Israel in 2007 was worse than apartheid. He should know. He was chief of intelligence for Umkhonto we Sizwe (the ANC's armed wing). The norm against apartheid is part of jus cogens. The norm against colonial occupation should be. I support this boycott.

I actually disagree quite vehemently with you on this one. Not just because I do disapprove of academic boycotts in general as being destructive to free exchange of ideas, but because I think this one is likely to be disastrous, ineffective, and a great propaganda victory to the Israeli right and its American supporters.

You know about the efforts here I am involved with on this issue. I wish, work-related privacy notwithstanding, I could show you some of the messages we've received from our interlocutors this week (over)reacting to the boycott vote. "How can you criticise the state of the debate here, when in the UK they're so anti-debate they want to shut down all interaction with Israeli society?" While I find many of these people far more sympathetic with Israel than I am, I can't ignore the fact that they are often also the same people who have most consistently worked to end American support for the Israeli occupation. I am horrified by the thought that this is likely to alienate them from a broader international movement, and saddened by the leverage it gives to those right-wing voices who are already constantly attacking them here for their efforts on the issue.

It also makes little sense to me to use such a indiscriminate tool as citizenship when it is so bad a predictor of actual political standing, in this case. You make a strong case for singling out the Israeli state for criticism, and I find it compelling. But I think you over-weight the issue of complicity here, given how applicable that charge is to those of us that work, pay taxes, and live in other states guilty of imperialism, militarism, and other gross crimes (not the least of which being my own). When academics, however complicit, are likely to be those most willing to critique from within, is it really right to refuse them dialogue and support on the basis of the passport they hold? What about Palestinian academics with Israeli citizenship? Are they too be boycotted as well?

It's not that I don't agree with many of the points you raise above. But I think you largely overlook what, too me, is the most important issue: the practical political impact of the proposed boycott, which is what sets it apart from the South African example.

Boycotts are a blunt tool, yes; sometimes they're useful, yes. But more importantly, sometimes they are good politics. They are effective when they have wide support from a number of key constituencies (not the case here, as far as I can tell) and when they directly "hurt" the people who are a) most clearly responsible for the outrage, and b) best positioned to change the offending policy. Sports boycotts affect a much broader range of society (and one probably less likely to be already oppositional), and effective economic boycotts, in a capitalist society, tend to have an impact not just on corporations but on a state to which they're closely wedded.

But who in the power structure of Israel--or of Israel's supporters in America--is really going to be hurt by a British boycott of academics (who are, as you say, an important locus of dissent, and closely linked to the Israeli human rights and anti-occupation sector)? In fact, it seems to give them another weapon to taunt the Israeli left with--"see, here, it's proof that they hate us all--even you, the most progressive, are being targeted." I have enormous respect for Ilan Pappe as an academic and an activist, but I think he is largely alone on this issue. Also, the real price this will exact will be pretty minimal (as you say, far less than what Palestinians in the territory face). I have a feeling it's more likely to just provoke a petulant, irritated, and counterproductive response. The right will be gleeful, the left further disempowered, humiliated, and isolated.

You talk about this as one aspect of a "broader sanctions campaign," and boy, would I love for there to be the support for such a campaign, but sitting here in the country that provides the economic and military backbone of support for the occupation, it doesn't seem bloody likely anytime soon. On South Africa, you had widespread popular sympathy in most of the countries that had ties to the apartheid-era government. That's not the case here, sadly, and I think the chances of building such a movement in the States in particular are damaged, rather than advanced, by the academic boycott idea.

From here, the primary purpose of this boycott seems to be to make a lot of people in the UK feel good about their anti-imperialist credentials. It doesn't strike me as being very likely to do anything much to further the Palestinian cause or a peaceful solution to the conflict, and in fact--by shoring up reactionary voices--may make it harder. It fails all the practical tests I'd put to such a proposal, no matter how sympathetic I find myself with the principles you lay out in its support.
Ok that last bit was shitty and uncharitable, and i feel bad for saying it now. I'm sorry. I didn't really mean you, but was thinking of certain people and perspectives I found vexing during engagement with UK-based student activism on these issues.

I do think the principled is important, as well the practical. Both have moral weight (I am still thinking over Massad's critique of queer rights activism in this light). And I'm speaking partly from the frustrations of working in the appallingly narrow framework of discussion here, after those pleasant years in exile among people who agreed with me ;)
While I miss the broader UK consensus about Palestine, though, I think progress on this issue--sadly--has to be linked with effective dismantling of American support for the Israeli occupation. Hence the importance I place on working to build such consensus here. I actually think we are seeing more of an opening in terms of public dissent than in decades, which is why I am worked up about things I find counterproductive.

ok i am going to stop chewing up yr comments section now, you can call me if you want to wrangle over this more, or tell me off in person.
ok, can't help myself, one more thing-- just found this excellent personal essay on israel and south africa from tony karon, the jewish south african journalist and editor of if you don't read his blog 'rootless cosmopolitan', you should, and not just b/c of the name:
Thanks for your comments, and for apologising for the last paragraph, which was in fact shitty and uncharitable and completely misses the point that the boycott didn’t originate in some over-zealous UK activists getting on their high anti-imperialist horses, but was a response to a call from Palestinian academic unions.

You make many excellent points about the proposed boycott which deserve much more attention than I can give them here. But briefly, in no particular order of importance: (i) I find it hard to believe that anyone who is genuinely committed to Palestinian self-determination is going to abandon ship because they disagree with this boycott. We all have tactical disagreements, but they don’t necessarily lead us to jettison a cause that we believe to be worthwhile. (ii) You are right that citizenship is a bad indicator of actual political views, but this isn’t about boycotting this or that person because of the way s/he thinks; it’s a protest against an entire system, a set of institutions in which everyone participates and from which everyone benefits (even if they disagree with it), founded on some thoroughly illegitimate and problematic ideas. (iii) In talking about military service, I don’t think I overweigh complicity at all – serving in an army of occupation makes you a good deal more complicit because you don’t even have the excuse of physical/psychological distance from the abuses at issue. (iv) I think we may actually be over-estimating the extent to which Israeli academia has been/is likely to be anti-Occupation – Tanya Reinhart writes that no Israeli university senate has ever passed a resolution condemning the closure of Palestinian universities; Ilan Pappe estimates that about 100 out of 9000 academics have raised their voices against the Occupation (I can give you references).

But overall, I’m disappointed by your response, not because I doubt the factual accuracy or political astuteness of any of it, but because it says essentially: ‘don’t do this because the US isn’t ready for it, it will antagonise people in the US, therefore it will be counter-productive.’ That’s as much an imperial model of solidarity as any I’ve seen. It doesn’t seem to matter, in this argument, that Palestinians want this boycott. I agree that the US is a very crucial player in all of this, but I think you forget that a lot of people have given up on the US doing anything progressive on this issue (historically, Republicans have been fairer, more even-handed on Israel-Palestine than Democrats; but today’s Republicans aren’t James Baker-type realists, they’re ideological Christian evangelist/Eretz Israel types; a Hillary win isn’t going to be good for Palestine; and even Obama had to tone down his initially progressive comments on the issue). As far as US civil society is concerned, there are, no doubt, some incredibly heroic people doing valuable work and really sticking their necks out (your organisation is one of them), but we all know that this boycott is very unlikely to have passed in a national union of university staff in the US. US civil society is way behind on this issue. To say to the rest of the world – sorry, please don’t go ahead with this because it won’t go down well with our people – is really unfortunate. If we had to wait till US civil society (let alone the state) was ‘ready’, we would not have global agreements on small arms, we would not have an ICC, we would have a good deal less progress on climate change (although I know some very exciting things are happening in the north-east, the north-west and California), etc. etc. etc. I worry that being immersed in that society has really constrained your sense of the scope of the possible.
This comment has been removed by the author.
Have been trying to comment, but it doesn't seem to go through. Hope this one does.

I'm following the debate here and elsewhere with interest and had a couple of other consequentialist concerns. I was thinking of the whole school of 'revisionist' Israeli historians, Pappe among them, who admit to having been first exposed to a clearly-articulated Palestinian position in the UK. It feels important to keep British academia, with its pro-Palestine atmosphere and freedom of information, open to young Israeli graduate students (I'm assuming the boycott extends to admissions as well, or will do so eventually) as a space where (a) they may be forced to admit the legitimacy of the other side's case, or at least hear it expressed forcefully in a reasonably neutral setting they won't find at home, (b) meet Palestinians on terms of equality, (c) produce (potentially) anti-Occupation work that won't be receieved with the indifference or hostility you point out is becoming endemic to the Israeli academy. It seems too much like delivering a whole generation of scholars into the hands of the conservative wing of American academia, which is surely not what we want, seeing that we can't assume 'boycotted' academics will sullenly see the folly of their country's ways and exert the pressure we'd like them to.

I suppose the point has been made, but surely what-will-this-lead-to concerns ought to be at the heart of a movement aiming at goals in the realm of the possible (and you do agree the debate has ceased to be about Israel's right to exist), not peripheral to a greater principle no longer politic.

I'm surprised you thought Nussbaum's suggestions anodyne. Will they force Isreali troops out of the West Bank and make the settlements disappear? -- clearly not, very far from it. But neither will the boycott in itself -- and of course that's why it's conceived as part of a larger plan of exclusion. I understand Nussbaum as saying the problem is that in doing so, the Academy overshoots itself, expressing its frustration at the backwardness of mainstream public/political opinion by trying to compensate with a radical gesture -- one that might do more harm than good. I hope that's a less uncharitable statement of that position.

Moreover, I cannot agree with the comparison to Fair Trade activism, to which I share your skepticism. Here's why: (a) targetting specific individuals and institutions will remain an act of collective activism, requiring the same sort of debate and consensus-building as a blanket boycott, (b) far from reducing it to isolated consumer-like choices, I believe it will promote a continued engagement with the idea of complicity and bring the necessary caution to the exercise, as opposed to the one-size-fits-all do-it-once-and-get-it-over-with nature of a boycott (shared responsibility can't be a one-off thing, can it?) (c) democratic centralism in union solidarity is more ideally the product of an emerging consensus among individual unions (which we have reason to believe can emerge in the UK) than of a whip from labour high command, crafted from majority vote and feigning a consensus that doesn't exist.

That said, I liked Pappe's article very much. I feel very strongly for Pappe's view, and it is of course appropriate to make a comparison to what so many of us in India felt when Modi was denied his American visa (I wonder what Nussbaum's book says about the affair). Such thoroughbred liberals as Vir Sanghvi made a pained 'he may be a mass-murderer but he's our mass murderer' argument in the Hindustan Times op-ed columns, and we knew there was something awfully inconsistent (hypocritical?) about the principle of it. But it felt so right, like a playground bully getting his comeuppance from the headmaster. But it was frustrating that genocide's place of honour in the jus cogens box wouldn't suffice for him to have it worse, and sooner.

Another call for a sporting boycott in recent memory was the (very much right-wing) one against Pakistan. I was (and would remain) opposed to it for reasons I am willing to defend, but I'm trying to work out why I don't think the principle exonerates Israel as well. After all, there is a position from where Pakistan-administered Kashmir looks awfully, if superficially, like Occupied Palestine.

So I don't really know where I stand. Only, it seems painfully apparent just how much goes into provoking the consensus of outrage needed to enlarge the dimensions of jus cogens.

I'm aware that Palestinian unions called for the boycott, and the fact does give me pause. I guess I come down to the same point here as with the whole Hamas thing: I respect their right to do so, and maintain my right to disagree that it's a good idea. I know this may seem to fickle an idea of solidarity for some to accept as being worthy of the term. (PUUTE has also called for the firing of Sari Nusseibeh, for example, on similar grounds, and I find myself uneasy about that too.)

In response to your specific points-- 1. I don't think it will lead people to abandon the cause, but I do think it will make it harder for them to take a strong stance on the issue. 2. Will talk about this further later, as this is perhaps my biggest instinctive and substantive discomfort. As I understand it (from Mona Baker and others) the boycott does not differentiate between individuals and institutions, or when it does, it is in the sense of a pre-emptive assumption of guilt, which people can only get around by satisfying certain criteria. 3. Yes, but again, this doesn't apply to enough of the people in question to convince me. Not all Israeli citizens serve in the armed forces, and while those who don't are certainly underrepresented in universities, they are there. And serving in an army of occupation has also, in many cases, turned people into activists against those abuses. Are you saying that anyone who has ever served in the Israeli military--regardless of what their political evolution since has been--is deserving of punishment? I can see a case for that, but disagree with it. 4. Don't need references--I've read (at least some of) the Reinhardt stuff you're referring to. I agree that the record of Israeli academic institutions is not what I'd hope for, and I may have overstated the case above. But I don't see how this will make it more progressive. And given that academia has been a space for at least some of the most important voices--as well as for the work of teaching critical thinking, for disrupting or undermining a hegemonic narrative--I am reluctant to act against it.

Your main point: even as I was writing, I was uncomfortable with the US-centric nature of my response, and I expected your objection to it. Yes, of course my position is colored by the context I'm working in now. I agree that that's problematic. But I don't think the objections are irrelevant. The other issues you name--climate change, small arms--are (thank God) not so overwhelmingly influenced by US congressional politics. I suppose I feel that there's more potential for leverage here than you do, partly as a result of the particular political and historical moment brought about by the Iraq disaster and a greater willingness to question US policy in the region. I'm no doubt influenced by my emotional and practical investment in efforts to realise that opportunity. I am not arguing that we should be held hostage to the whims of the US public--if I thought this boycott was likely to have a serious and helpful impact on public opinion in Israel, I'd be happy to say screw the US, do it. Since I haven't been convinced of that possibility, I am more attuned to the costs it imposes (both in terms of political fallout, and in the impact on ideals of academic, intellectual, and cultural exchange). I think EU economic sanctions could have that kind of effect, and I'd support them no matter how loudly people in my own backyard howled. And yes, I do see that there is a benefit here in terms of symbolic demonstration of support for the Palestinian cause, but I think there are other ways to do this that don't bear the costs this one does.

Also-- "This boycott is unlikely to be passed in a national union of university staff in the US"--of course it's not, but is that only a measure of backwardness? MESA has discussed such a boycott; the majority of its membership disagrees with the idea, and I don't think that's solely about being "way behind" global civil society. I think it's also about serious principled disagreement.

Beyond the practical objection, (which I admit is somewhat indefensible in moral terms) I just find myself really breaking over the indiscriminate nature of the boycott. I would be fine with something that targeted institutions (and tried to remove EU funding for them). I'd also be fine with something that targeted specific academics who have been involved in egregious abuses or support for them (much like the actions against Modi). Or visa bans for officials. Any of those things. But as egregious as Israel's crimes have been, I do not think they move its citizens onto a different moral plane where they are subject to a kind of pre-determined condemnation. Otherwise I am faced with the prospect of boycotting people who have done far more that I ever will to stop the crimes against humanity committed by their government, and I won't do that. My hands aren't clean enough.

What does supporting this boycott mean, in practice? Do we stop going to lectures by Raz and Shlaim, both of whom are still (as far as I know) Israeli citizens? Even if it's only those academics currently resident in Israel, do I stop buying the books of the people doing some of the best academic work on the very issues at the core of this conflict? If a group of anti-occupation academics invites me to assist them in some effort I support, do I refuse to go? Do I boycott Jeff Halper? The East-West Divan Orchestra?

This drags us into a lot of familiar territory about resistance movements and the way they can act to reify national (or other) categories, and I think a lot of my overwhelming instinctive opposition to this proposal is rooted in those kinds of concerns-- although I'm aware it's murky ground. That's why I am struggling with this, and I take what you're saying really seriously. But I am still not convinced.
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